Owls, mysterious and wise, are a favorite bird for many. The fact that most of us never see them due to their camouflage and nocturnal habits makes them all the more mysterious. It makes you wonder how many different ones might be living in your own backyard. In this article we will look at owls in Kentucky. Such as what owls species live in the great state of Kentucky, a bit about their size and appearance, as well as what part of the state they can be found in.
It is currently thought that there are about 19-20 species of owls found in North America. The state of Kentucky is home to at least 7 of these owl species!
Let’s take a look at those species and learn a bit about them, shall we?
7 Owls in Kentucky
The 7 species of Owls found in Kentucky are Northern Saw-whet Owl, Eastern Screech-owl, Barn Owl, Great Horned Owl, Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, and the Barred Owl.
While you can always get sightings of uncommon owls passing through or spending time over the border from a neighboring state, our research from allaboutbirds.org and Audubon shows the following 7 owl species are currently considered to be found in Kentucky either year round or seasonally on a consistent basis.
1. Long-eared Owl
- Scientific name: Asio otus
- Length: 13.8-15.8 inches
- Weight: 7.8-15.3 oz
- Wingspan: 35.4-39.4 inches
The Long-Eared Owl is the most comfortable roosting in dense foliage. According to allaboutbirds.org, the Long-eared Owl has a non-breeding range in the state of Kentucky. So while they aren’t terribly common in the state, they are there and can be found if you know when and where to look. Though they enjoy the woods for roosting, they need wide-open areas for hunting.
The ear tufts on its head that give the Long-Eared owl its name are not its only distinguishing feature. The male owl has a call that can be heard 1 kilometer (just over half a mile) away. The Long-Eared Owl has a variety of calls, it has a typical “hoot” and also makes a barking sound.
The Long-Eared Owl is an efficient hunter, with hearing so precise it can snatch insects in pitch darkness. They are extremely elusive animals but can be spotted by looking for their pellets on the ground. All owls have distinctly shaped pellets. In the winter, when they roost in groups, they may also be easier to spot.
2. Great Horned Owl
- Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
- Length: 18.1-24.8 in
- Weight: 32.1-88.2 oz
- Wingspan: 39.8-57.1 in
An image of the Great Horned Owl probably comes to mind when you think of owls, with its large booming hoot and long, horn-like tufts where it gets its name from. It’s one of the most common owls in North America and can be found in nearly any semi-open areas between the Arctic and the tropics.
This owl is a very adept predator that can take down birds and mammals much larger than itself, even including other raptors like ospreys. When larger prey isn’t available, it will also consume tiny scorpions, mice, and frogs.
The Great Horned Owl is well adapted to all weather, as it has extremely soft feathers that insulate against the cold and also serve to muffle the sounds of their flight when in pursuit. This amazing bird has a grip strength that can easily sever the spine of large prey, and requires a force of 28 pounds to open back up.
This Great Horned Owl is a permanent resident of Kentucky and the majority of the United States.
3. Northern Saw-whet Owl
- Length: 7.1-8.3 inches
- Weight: 2.3-5.3 oz
- Wingspan: 16.5-18.9 inches
Northern Saw-whet Owls are some of the smallest owls in Kentucky. They have big round heads and big eyes, and are non-breeding residents to the state of Kentucky.
The best bet for catching a glimpse of a Northern Saw-whet Owl is to learn it’s call and listen for it at night. Luckily, they have a distinct call that sounds like a blade being sharpened with a whetstone, earning the name “saw-whet” owl. During late winter through early summer they tend to call more frequently, so be sure to listen to a high-pitched, “too-too-too” call around then.
Their mottled brown plumage blends in easily to the trees around them, especially when they’re perched motionlessly on a branch. These owls are also naturally secretive, preferring to lay low and avoid being noticed. Like most other owls, they’re also only active at night. In addition to their tiny size, there are a few other reasons why these owls are notoriously difficult to locate.
4. Barn Owl
- Scientific name: Strix alba
- Length: 12.6-15.8 inches
- Weight: 14.1-24.7 Oz
- Wingspan: 39.4-49.2 inches
The Barn Owl, with its distinctive screech, is a permanent resident of Kentucky and found throughout the entire state. This owl lives up to its name and can often be found occupying barns, and other abandoned structures. They also roost in hollow tree trunks and thick clumps of trees.
There are at least 46 varieties of Barn Owl worldwide. The North American version is the largest, while the smallest comes from the Galapagos Islands. The North American Barn Owl is twice the size of its diminutive island cousin. Despite their global presence, habitat loss is beginning to affect their populations in some areas.
5. Short-eared Owl
- Scientific name: Asio flammeus
- Length: 13.4-16.9 in
- Weight: 7.3-16.8 oz
- Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 in
Short-eared Owls prefer open fields and grasslands, and have adapted well to humans by moving into airports as well, as the planes coming in for a landing displace insects for the owl to swoop up and catch. They get their name from their ear tufts, similar to the Great Horned Owl, though they are so short on this species that they’re often invisible.
Short-eared Owls soar silently over grasslands on broad, rounded wings and are most active around dawn and dusk. They use their incredibly acute hearing to track and hunt small mammals and other birds. It’s also one of the few species that has appeared to benefit from strip-mining, as it’s been found often nesting on reclaimed and replanted mines.
This open-country hunter is one of the world’s most widely distributed owls, and among the most frequently seen during the daytime. Short-eared Owls are capable of traveling long distances, as shown by their distribution, and there have even been reports of these owls descending on ships hundreds of miles from land.
Short-eared Owls are found throughout the entire state of Kentucky, in the non-breeding season only. These owls migrate far north into Canada and Alaska to breed.
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6. Eastern Screech-owl
- Scientific name: Megascops asio
- Length: 6.3-9.8 inches
- Weight: 4.3-8.6 oz
- Wingspan: 18.9-24.0 inches
The Eastern Screech Owl is a common owl found in most wooded areas within its range. It is a year-round resident of Kentucky and is common in any area that has a large concentration of trees. The Eastern Screech Owl’s mottled brown and grey feathers, allow it to blend very well into the trees, making it a master of disguise.
The Eastern Screech Owl is an expert at hiding, but it produces pellets which it expels at the base of the tree where it lives. Not only does this provide a good opportunity to investigate the owl’s diet, but it also gives clues as to where you can find an Eastern Screech Owl.
Although Eastern Screech Owl typically mates for life, occasionally the male will mate with two females. When this happens the second female will kick the first one out of her nest. She will then lay her own eggs, and incubate both sets of eggs.
7. Barred Owl
- Scientific name: Strix varia
- Length: 16.9-19.7 in
- Weight: 16.6-37.0 oz
- Wingspan: 39.0-43.3 in
The Barred Owl is a common sound to hear in old forests and treed swamps, and their hooting call that sounds like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”. It originated as a bird of the east, but has slowly been spreading through the Pacific Northwest and then southward into California.
Barred Owls are large raptors with stocky bodies and smooth, round heads. Their eyes are wide and so deeply brown that they appear completely black. They have white and brown mottling all over their plumage, with vertical brown barring on their undersides and vertical barring on their upper parts.
They commonly live in the same areas as the Great Horned Owl, but will immediately vacate their territory when one is nearby, as the much bigger Great Horned Owl is their most serious predatory threat. This has led them to evolve some fantastic camouflage, and the young Barred Owls are capable of “walking” up trunks to better avoid this predator.
The Barred Owl is found throughout the state of Kentucky year-round. The main range of these owls is the south eastern United States, primarily in swamps. In Kentucky the best places to look for them are woodlands and forests near bodies of water.